Monday, March 26, 2007

Are You A Mama's Girl?

How I Got To Be A Mama's Girl

I've been reading this book about black lesbian coming out stories, and, with few exceptions, I've noticed that the focus on family response has essentially been that of the mother. This could be for several reasons, such as the mother often being the only parent in the household during most of the growing years, particularly in black families, and/or that we relate to our mother more so because of shared gender identity. But in one of the stories, this woman wrote something to the effect of having always been a "momma's girl" (I spell it "mama," but "po-TEY-toes, po-TAH-toes"). And I paused at that and thought about the other stories in the book, as well as other coming out stories I've heard from women in general and what I've heard from other lesbians about their families (the few I know).

In the majority of the stories in the book that discuss family, it's mainly or only the mother being discussed. In reading Linda Villarosa's coming out story published in Essence, I noticed that the focus was not only on her mother, but her mother was also invited to write on Villarosa's coming out experience in the magazine. And whenever LA Girl mentioned her family to me, it tended to be her mother. She mentioned others, of course, but I couldn't help but notice she never spoke of her father.

So, what I want to know is do us queer women tend to be mama's girls growing up rather than "daddy's little girl"? If so, could this be added to the long list of idiotic signs used to discern lesbianism, particularly in little girls? And could this have some relation to us preferring women? By that, I don't mean does being a mama's girl "cause" queerness--I mean does our queerness "cause" us to be mama's, related to my question about the idiotic signs.

Personally...I am 100% a mama's girl. I think, when I was a lot younger, I was "daddy's little girl" for a bit. I don't really know what changed. Well, maybe I do...and I hate to even think about this, let alone publicly admit it. I mentioned in another post very briefly that when I was very young, I didn't like darker blacks. I also mentioned in a rather drive-by way in that post that I have a white parent--miracle of miracles, it's the male, for a change. So, do the math--my mother is darker than I am. Now, I hate referring to my father as white, so most of the time I just call him French (which, yes, his family is ridiculously French, save one Italian surname...otherwise, French names even I can't pronounce).

It's kind of comical that I have gone from having a problem with my black parent to having a problem with my white one--well, that's not technically true. I don't have a problem with him. But I have a problem with thinking anyone in my family is white, because when I think of "white" I think of white Americans. And when I think of white Americans, I don't think pleasant stuff a lot of the time, particularly when I'm thinking about white males. And neither does he, because his family is not American and because...well, a lot of foreigners don't think of good stuff when they think of Americans, period. And he doesn't think of himself as "white" or "white American," either. So I don't.

And I definitely feel more solidarity with white French people--and, in some sense, France--than white Americans--and, in some sense, America. To make a long story short, even though I grew up in the South and in a southern culture and am kind of conservative, I also grew up learning a bit about French culture and living it a little bit. It made my home environment and, in some sense, my thinking a bit different from other southerners...because some people are a little surprised by how unsouthern I am, even though some of those elements are definitely there in my personality. But, to just break it down, white Francs just don't tend to be the assholes white Americans tend to be. There's such a difference when I tell white French people that my family is French--immediately, I'm accepted on so many levels that I'm not in the US. Oftentimes, all it takes is for them to hear my name and they usually comment on how it's a French name, and that's how it gets started...not because I'm bragging to these people.

In relation to that point, I saw on, I think it was, Rachel's Tavern's post about prejudices that someone commented they are prejudiced against mixed-race females because we go on and on about our diverse ethnic backgrounds, particularly to our "non-white" friends. Hmmm. Funny. My rather drive-by mention of my father, once again, and the brief sketch of my French background above. It reminds me of how, in the US, a black person can talk about being mixed-race, and people don't want to hear it or acknowledge it. Or they think you're trying to opt out of the more disadvantaged background to which you belong. Dude, you see how much I write about being black, okay? And I know that's all most people consider me as, even the people I've actually told about my background and have even told a little bit about some of the ways in which I grew up in this odd split poor-liberal-agnostic-French/black-southern-rich-white-religious-republican culture. Nope--still just black.

For the record, I almost never hear mixed blacks talking about it. They either mainly identify as black and hang out with blacks, or they identify as who-knows-what and hang out with everybody but blacks. This tends to be a function of upbringing. Since mine was a very odd cultural experience and somewhat varying but generally mixed environments over time, I'm a little more balanced than those two extremes. My point is, with French people, the choice forced on mixed kids in America is not there. Plus, French people tend to care more about your being one of them, i.e. French, not the racial background. There are Asians, Latinos, Africans, etc, in France who are considered and call themselves--guess what--French. It's kind of nice when it happens to me, knowing it's something that will never happen in America. I'm never going to just be American, nor will I ever be black and white (and Native American).

Is all this relevant? Well, getting back to where I originally was, I used to be more fascinated as a kid with being a "different" black. I remember asking my mother if my father was white. Apparently, the only one of us who didn't ask that was my oldest sister. And I took it upon myself to mark "other" on school forms for race, and then I would see that teachers would change those forms and mark "black" for me. So I stopped. But I developed a lot of French pride...candidly, more French pride than American pride, which is still true today. I also remember telling my mother to her face that I don't like darker blacks. My mother, it turns out, has always been bothered by the skin color thing. She's not actually "dark," but she doesn't pass the paper-bag test, i.e. she's not the tone, or lighter, of a brown paper bag.

When I think back on this, I come to two conclusions. One, racism isn't always learned. I would say that my entire immediate family consists of equal opportunity haters, like I mentioned in my last post, some of us worse than, my mother and I, actually. We are the big bigots in our family, and no one else really openly rants and raves about people the way we do. After growing up and knowing full-well all the negative things she thinks about black people, I know that she--and no one else, either--did not teach me to dislike blacks who are darker than I am, because she doesn't have that prejudice herself (and my sisters love dark black men). And my father is not someone who puts people down--the judginess thing I have comes completely from my mother--but when he does kind of get into that or making improper jokes about people, it's usually white Americans and Latinos (as opposed to blacks, gays, Asians, Christians, etc).

You could maybe argue the media taught me to dislike dark skin...but you're talking about a kid who is, oh, probably not even in elementary school yet, though, and who loved to watch stuff like cartoons/kids shows and Nickelodeon all day solely. My story is one of the reasons I really believe that, as humans, we just naturally discriminate against people who are different from us. I truly believe that's our nature. Think about all the ways we discriminate, too--it's not just on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, class, nationality, disability and religion. We discriminate on much smaller scales against people who are different, as well. I'm not saying racism is never learned, which brings me to my second point...

Today, I would probably say my mother is one of my best friends. Like I said, we rant and rave about race, and a lot of the time we do it together. We get along, even though we are pretty different. In general, we have gotten along throughout my life, although we get along best now. I don't tell her everything, obviously, because I haven't told her I'm queer. But I don't tell anyone everything, or even most things. But she definitely tells me more than I should know, as her child, and I have often felt like my parents' marriage includes me. I am a loyal person (all of a sudden, since the past three years or so), and yet there is no one whom I will be more fiercely loyal to than my mother. I'm always on her side, which I know bothers my father. She knows everything (which is one reason why I'm relatively certain she must know I'm queer), so, with few exceptions, if she says something I believe it or do it or don't do it (whatever the case may be).

I think what brought all this on is...fathers are just different from mothers, and kids know this. But that doesn't always stop, for example, little boys from wanting their dad's approval. Some of the stories I've read about with little gay boys is their relationship dynamic with their father growing up, which often seems like it wasn't good. Still, I think most kids, regardless of orientation, know that their mother is the go-to parent for needs. I'm spoiled, yes. But my mother has spoiled me way more than my father has. I think I realized early on that there were some things I needed or wanted or that would have been helpful that I just wasn't going to get from my father. With the exception of wants (and relatively few of those exceptions), I learned that my mother was the parent who was always going to do anything for me.

And, particularly with my mother, family means too much to her for relatively little things to get in the way. This is why I could say with certainty that my coming out wouldn't really be all that bad, at least with respect to her. In fact, I probably think more about what her reaction would be than anyone else's.

What I learn about race from this is all of us have to fight our natural prejudices, even starting at a young age. I think at the most basic level, being as young as I was, that the reason why my relationship dynamic with my parents changed was because I learned it was "wrong" to dislike people for things like skin color. Although I don't remember being directly told that, I'm sure I was. After all, I was telling my mother I didn't like her because of this. And so I vaguely remember, as a kid, trying to stop thinking like that until, eventually, I really did forget all about it--probably more so for the reasons listed above about parents than understanding why hating people is "wrong," but also just getting older and forming more of an identification with black people rather than just with lighter skin tones like my father, his family, and my sisters and I have.

I also remember being mean to darker black kids, particularly darker black girls. I didn't want to play with them, and I didn't want them touching my stuff. And I think what happened there was I kind of came to realize, on some level, that I was never going to have any girl friends if I kept this up. At this time, I lived in a neighborhood that was becoming more black, even though the pre-school I attended was almost entirely white. And the girls my sisters would bring home were generally black, and all the little girls on my street who wanted to play with me were black girls who were darker than I was.

I didn't live near the white kids who attended my school, and I wasn't accepted by them anyway--I knew that young, and I remembered wondering why they liked the other black little girl but not me. From what my mother says, it's likely because they knew her father was white--he would come to school to retrieve her sometimes. But my mother was always the one who would pick me up from pre-school. So my options for friends in life, as I saw it back then, were going to be people who were darker than I am.

These are some really selfish reasons, if you think about it. But they worked. I'd forgotten all about how I used to be this way. My mother and I have been close for years and years and years, and it has been very clear that I have been closer to her than to my father, especially these past few years. In fact, I find myself trying to make more of an effort to include my father, because I know he feels left out.

I think part of these ideas for how I overcame my racism against darker blacks is the question of whether or not exposure to certain kinds of people matters. I think that it can be helpful and has been, in my case, at least with regards to darker blacks. I had a mother who was darker than I was, lived in a relatively black neighborhood during a good portion of my youngest years in life and started out at a majority black elementary school. I couldn't be in these kinds of environments all the time and keep disliking the majority of blacks. I was going to have to get used to them, and I did...right up until the black kids started picking on me. Luckily enough, I had unlearned my prejudices by that time. Imagine how kids like I was can--and do--turn out in majority white environments, whether or not they are mixed-race, white, Asian or anything else. It's scary.

Exposure can cut two ways, though. You can develop more stereotypes or even have ones you thought previously reinforced. It's not a sure thing, but it's worth a shot. I can also speak from personal experience about having stereotypes reinforced and developing new ones, particularly with regards to the GLBT community.

I have one last question I want to explore about mama's girls--does being one have any correlation with how we treat women and/or what kind of woman we look for? For me, my family is clearly oddball. I grew up with parents who are very different from each other. And though I can't sit here and list off without hesitation, as if I have them memorized and set in stone, qualities and attributes that I want in a woman--nor can I say with any definitiveness that these are the same things present in my mother--I have recognized over the past few years that I am hopelessly attracted to women who are almost nothing like me. I see two connections--my parents being different from each other, and my being opposite my mother in most ways.

When I meet women, even as friends, whom I can sit and have a "yes" party with, i.e. we agree on so many things and find so many similarities to each other, I find that two things tend to happen: I get bored, and I get annoyed. I can see all my flaws in this person while simultaneously gaining essentially nothing new from interactions with her. But with women who differ from me significantly, the differences both frustrate and intrigue me. It's like the more incompatible we seem, the more interested I am. Part of that might just be my personality, i.e. liking to solve problems and challenges. But I think this also goes back to how I wrote about most of my close friends being different from me and balancing me out. I think I'm so extreme that I need that. And we're different but we just love each other so much, and that's how I know it can work...I've grown up my whole life seeing it work and not really understanding how or why.

Wow, I just started to write that I don't treat women like I treat my mother or look for such women, and then I realized that I totally do! I do the teasing thing with my mother. And she's sensitive and emotional, and, apparently, those are the kind of women I keep attracting and becoming attracted to. And I screw up with them because I'm not sensitive and emotional and don't think about feelings, and I try to apologize. The difference there is my mother lets me apologize and takes the apology; they don't. Then again, I also think that because I know her so well, I can anticipate her reactions better and, thus, do think about her feelings more. She's feminine; they're feminine. She talks a lot; they talk a lot. And I directly told my best friend at school that she treats me like my mother does, i.e. taking care of me and treating me like I'm a baby, and I love that (even though I said it as if I was complaining)!

There's more, but I can't think of it right now.

So...are we mama's girls?